BBC Music Magazine
The life of Death in Venice
How the novella became an opera
Many of the events traced in Britten’s Death in Venice actually happened in real life. They hark back to 1911 when the German author Thomas Mann, suffering from writer’s block, visited the decaying Italian city with his wife Katia. They stayed at the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido where Mann encountered a Polish family and their beautiful teenage son, who became an object of erotic fascination for him. The boy’s name was W¯adys¯aw Moes, his nickname W¯adzio – it’s not the biggest leap to the Tadzio of Mann’s 1912 novella.
But the book has a rich hinterland too, stretching right back to Plato. Mann draws on Greek myth, the gods Apollo and Dionysus, Sigmund Freud’s theories of mind and Nietzsche’s philosophy, weaving them into a story that explores thwarted homosexual desire, the passing of time, youth, old age and the creative process. These themes united Mann and Britten.
There was another artist, too, who was interested in adapting Mann’s work. Luchino Visconti’s film was released in 1971, a year after Britten began work on his opera. The composer was advised not to watch it, in case he be accused of plagiarism. He needn’t have worried, as there were marked differences: Visconti reimagines Gustav von Aschenbach as a composer rather than writer. It was an interesting twist, especially given that Mann had reputedly based his protagonist on a photo of Mahler. The screen version is more explicit and provocative than either the book or opera; all three have made their mark on 20th-century culture.